When organized labor and their political action committees started getting exploratory fundraising letters from the soft money PAC -- known as a 527 -- Americans for Jobs & Health Care, they probably assumed it would be like so many of the other 527s opening shop. Many of these big laborites, from machinist unions to plumbers to teamsters, ponied up $20,000 to $50,000 to help get the operation up and running.
And why not? Just about every liberal Democratic player in Washington was filing papers with the IRS to open up a 527 to take advantage of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform that essentially siphoned soft money -- contributions that cannot be capped, unlike hard donations to campaigns -- from the political parties to so-called "interest groups."
In fact, in the months leading up to the start of the 2004 presidential and congressional races, most observers felt that 527s would be the one saving grace for a Democratic Party sorely lacking in individual donors. They were right.
As it stands, 527s with backing from organized labor or left-wing entertainment figures or fat-walleted country club liberals will probably "invest" more than $500 million to try to defeat Republicans in 2004. Much of that will be focused on defeating President Bush.
"That's probably a conservative estimate," says an RNC staffer. "Organized labor alone is looking at $200 million to $300 million. In a lot of ways, we're just eating the Democrats lunch -- in individual donors to the party, fundraising in the House and Senate, the presidential campaigns. But with 527s, for whatever reason, we're behind the eight ball. I mean, we don't have a George Soros who could drop $100 million if he got really pissed off enough about something."
As it stands, Soros hasn't committed that much, but has provided millions of dollars to a number of left-wing organizations with the stated purpose of defeating the Bush administration. Those groups include the shadowy radical group, MoveOn.org, as well as a number of 527s pulled together by organized labor.
For context sake, consider that the Bush team will probably have more than $150 million in the bank by the time of the New Hampshire primary. When everything is said and done, Bush, congressional Republicans and the party may have as much as $500 million to spend in the fall, but that is using regulated, hard money.
The liberals' $500 million is above and beyond whatever the party and candidates will have at their disposal.
With this kind of cash flow, big surprise then that after the founders of Americans for Jobs & Health Care filed their initial IRS forms in mid-November 2003, they apparently decided to move the group beyond health care and jobs and tacked on "Progressive Values" to the name of the group. Yet no one should mistake this 527 as a Dean backer.
Americans for Jobs, Health Care & Progressive Values has garnered attention recently because of the attack ads the group has been running against former Vermont Gov. Howie Dean: the first made it appear that the National Rifle Association was backing Dean's candidacy, the second showed a picture of Osama bin Laden while a voiceover questioned Dean's foreign policy experience: "Americans want a president who can face the dangers ahead. But Howard Dean has no military or foreign policy experience. And Howard just cannot compete with George Bush on foreign policy."
"The ads are actually pretty good," says a Kerry for President staffer in Iowa. "They are the kind of thing I wish we had the nerve to run here. At least someone has some nerve to really go after the guy."
But publicly, the campaigns have been distancing themselves from the Americans for Jobs, Health Care & Progressive Values ads. And one candidate in particular has been running away pretty quick: Dick Gephardt. That's because a number of his former staffers and supporters are behind the Americans for Jobs, Health Care & Progressive Values operation.
David Jones is executive director and treasurer for the group and was a key fundraiser and adviser to Gephardt's congressional and presidential campaigns. He also has worked for Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), and both Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Other salaried staffers for Americans for Jobs, Health Care & Progressive Values include former staffers for Sen. Tom Harkin, as well as a former Kerry presidential campaign staffer who quit during that campaign's shakeup last month.
"This is just the kind of thing that illustrates why Dean is doing well," says one of his staffers in New Hampshire. "It's sneaky and underhanded and dirty. People are sick of it, and then you see that Kerry and Gephardt people are involved. Gee, big surprise."
Gephardt may be denying any knowledge of the group or its activities, but his denials are complicated by the fact that more than $100,000 of the group's money thus far raised comes from labor groups that have endorsed Gephardt for president.
"This outfit probably won't be around only because they are getting all this negative attention," says the RNC staffer (some of unions backing the PAC are reportedly demanding their money back). "But you have to know that we're going to be seeing stuff like this, and worse, when they stop attacking themselves and focus on the president. This is going to be a tough race, and if we don't get on the 527 bandwagon and figure out a way to catch up, the fight is going to be all the tougher."